The Other Place: Theater Review
Wild acclaim Off-Broadway for Laurie Metcalf's powerful lead performance prompted an uptown transfer for Sharr White's play, making the actress a Tony Award contender.
NEW YORK – Laurie Metcalf is no fool. The actress opted out of co-starring in the Broadway premiere of a new play by a leading American dramatist, choosing instead to stick with the uptown transfer of The Other Place, by the comparatively unheralded Sharr White. Even if the alternative, David Mamet’s The Anarchist, hadn’t turned out to be a short-lived dud, the decision would have been a smart one. In the role of a brittle biophysicist, terrified, angered and ultimately humbled by her own illness, Metcalf has found a vehicle that allows her tremendous gifts to blaze fiercely.
That character is Juliana, a supremely put-together professional woman in her no-nonsense business suit and sturdy heels. We first encounter her at a pharmacological convention in the Virgin Islands, conducting a presentation of a new drug designed to slow the neurological degeneration associated with dementia. Her air of brisk efficiency and aggressiveness in the competitive boys' club of corporate medicine is ruffled only by the incongruous presence in the audience of a young woman in a yellow bikini, who becomes a target for Juliana’s derision. But over the course of this crisp 70-minute one-act, the cracks in her sardonic armor become visible as her taut composure and bluntly controlling manner unravel.
First seen Off-Broadway in 2011, Joe Mantello’s super-sleek production perfectly mirrors the complexities of Juliana’s psychological state. The set, by Eugene Lee and Edward Pierce, is a stark tangle of what could be picture frames or windows. At times illuminated in patches, at others bathed in a soft glow or deep shadow, the enclosure provides a fractured view of everything and nothing. The central character’s volatile moods are echoed in the meticulous shifts of Justin Townsend’s lighting and Fitz Patton’s music and sound.
There’s a precision to the staging that enhances the puzzle-like intrigue of White’s play and safeguards it from slipping into the disease-of-the-week telefilm territory it could easily inhabit.
In Juliana’s account of her situation, she is in the process of divorcing her philandering oncologist husband Ian (Daniel Stern). She has only recently reestablished tentative contact with their 25-year-old daughter Laurel (Zoe Perry, triple-cast in the drama’s other female roles), who ran away from home at 15 to be with an older man, Richard (John Schiappa), Juliana’s subsequently vilified former colleague. Neither Juliana nor Ian has ever seen their grandchildren.
But an “episode” Juliana suffered during the convention calls into question the accuracy of almost everything the unreliable narrator has shared. She is convinced she has brain cancer, and despite her hostility toward Ian, she wants only for him to take the matter swiftly and surgically in hand. Forced to endure consultations with a female associate of her husband’s who specializes in cognitive disorders, Juliana is the thorniest and most uncooperative of patients.
A clear picture of Juliana’s condition emerges roughly 40 minutes into the play. And while the revelation might seem schematic given her line of work, the skill and economy of White’s writing, the unflinching focus of Metcalf’s performance, and the laser-like acuity of Mantello’s direction ensure that the drama remains compelling and intelligent. Taking its title from the second home on Cape Cod where the Boston couple spent happier times, The Other Place also functions as a mystery, deftly assembling pieces that shed light on both past and present.
The play’s secondary roles are pretty much exactly that. But it’s a rare pleasure to see Stern on a New York stage, lending deep reserves of empathy and kindness to Ian, even as he is strained to the breaking point in some affecting moments. Perry, Metcalf’s real-life daughter, is at her best as a stranger startled to find the disoriented Juliana in her home in a beautifully gauged scene in which she responds first with alarm and then increasing tenderness.
The mesmerizing center of the drama, however, is Metcalf’s spectacular performance. By turns proud, defensive, cruelly cutting and utterly helpless, she pushes us away only to yank us back with shattering self-exposure. This is fearless acting, conveying the myriad painful human contradictions of a woman clinging to her formidable intellect like a life-raft while desperately trying to find a safe channel through the enveloping fog.
Venue: Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, New York (runs through March 3)
Cast: Laurie Metcalf, Daniel Stern, Zoe Perry, John Schiappa
Director: Joe Mantello
Playwright: Sharr White
Set designers: Eugene Lee, Edward Pierce
Costume designer: David Zinn
Lighting designer: Justin Townsend
Music & sound designer: Fitz Patton
Video & projection designer: William Cusack
Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club, by special arrangement with MCC Theater